Ground side at Terminal One at Dubai International Airport at 1am, ready to begin the journey to the West African country of Mali.
Queueing up to check in for my flight on Ethiopian Airlines.
In the Marhaba lounge for an early morning bite to eat.
After the four hour flight to Addis Ababa I would then transfer for the seven hour flight on to Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako.
After last visiting back in 2016 I had always wanted to head back to West Africa. After spotting the opportunity to travel with the Dubai Trekkup Meetup group for a one week trip to Mali for a very reasonable $980 I decided it was good time to go.
About to head to the gate.
The security situation in Mali has been fraught since the start of the Northern Mali conflict in 2012. Despite the intervention of France and a coalition of neighbouring African countries, much of Mali remains off limits due to the presence of various Islamist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State.
Although our itinerary was relatively safe, the plan was to also venture into the red 'advise against all travel' area as advised by the UK Foreign Office, including the town and UNESCO World Heritage site of Djenné and the central plateau region, home of the Dogon people.
As well as the possibility of Islamist terrorist attacks such as the 2015 Radisson Blu hotel attack in the capital Bamako where 20 hostages were killed, there was also the danger of ethnic violence in the Mopti Region of the country.
A few weeks before we were due to depart there was a massacre in the Dogon village of Sobane Da when Fulani militia killed 35 people and only ~40 kilometers from the Dogon village of Begnimato where we planned to visit.
A couple of people pulled out of the trip shortly after this but luckily seven of us remained and were still committed to going.
The ET A350 for our early morning flight to Addis Ababa.
Watching the safety demonstration after they had closed the doors and prepared for push back.
Breakfast served after a bit of an early morning snooze.
And some hot Ethiopian black coffee to shake off the red-eye fog.
Watching the Oscar winning film Green Book with Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
Disembarking at a wet and rainy Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.
It was my first time visiting the airport since the much needed new expansion was finally opened. Funded and built by China for $363 million, it has tripled the airport’s capacity from 7 to now 22 million passengers annually.
Boarding the ET 787 for the 10:40am departure after the short layover.
Tomato juice served soon after take-off
Fish and rice with some white wine for lunch somewhere over Central Africa.
High above Ghana as we get closer to our destination.
And arriving at Bamako's Modibo Keita International Airport.
Upon deplaning I made my way to immigration. A security officer was checking through everyone's passports at the front of the queue. I'm not sure if it was because of my more exotic passport stamps (Iraq, Libya, Pakistan etc.) but I was handed over to another security officer and told to meet him again after collecting my luggage.
Despite being for flagged for some reason I was quickly stamped into my 133rd country visited.
At the luggage belt I met up with Piotr, the trip organizer. Unfortunately I was the only one of the group that was flagged for further checks so everyone would have to wait for me until I was interrogated.
After grabbing my bag I was directed to the security office. Luckily the security officer was quite friendly and quickly ascertained I was just a simple tourist and not some French mercenary. I had to completely empty my bags and I was a little nervous about him discovering my drone but luckily he thought the remote was a game controller and didn't venture further to see the actual quadcopter.
He did ask me if I had a 'gift' for him but I just feigned ignorance and said I could only offer him some of my protein bars which he quickly declined.
After getting some West African francs from the airport ATM, I finally met up with the rest of the guys and then followed our local guide, Ibrahim, to the waiting van for the ride into the city.
Outside Hotel Les Colibris for our one night stay in the capital.
The modest but comfortable lodgings and importantly cool airconditioning.
We were pretty exhausted after the jetlag and long travel day so dinner was just at the hotel restaurant. I wasn't too hungry so just opted for a coke and some fries. It was also a good chance to chat with the rest of the group, with people from a range of countries including Poland, Spain, Pakistan, Germany, Italy and as well as myself from New Zealand.
I then crashed into bed early at 8pm (and midnight Dubai time) to rest up for the drive to Ségou tomorrow.
Baguettes and an omelette for breakfast with Mathias from Italy and Hussam from Pakistan, both Civil Engineers working in Dubai. We chatted about some of the current Dubai construction projects including the 1000+ meter tall Dubai Creek Tower (apparently on hold) and the 210-metre giant ferris wheel Dubai Eye (problems with the foundations causing it to lean).
Also at breakfast was Sanny who had arrived in the early morning hours on a Royal Air Maroc flight via Casablanca and Doha.
Just after 8am we packed our bags and loaded up the van for the journey to Ségou.
Today's drive would be for 235 kilometers on the main road to Ségou, the fourth-largest city in Mali and situated on the banks of the Niger River.
Snaking our way through the busy Bamako morning traffic.
Passing the 46 meter tall La Tour d'Afrique, designed as a giant baobab with foothills at the base and a cradle at top with Bamanan ideograms representing consultation, union and solidarity.
At a Shell Service Station on the outskirts of the city to buy some snacks and drinks.
And finally on the open road heading east. The road condition were surprisingly good and we managed to cruise at a decent speed.
Stopping at a café in Konobougou about halfway to Ségou.
And a strong double espresso for a shot of energy.
Sheep munching on the side of the road as we headed off again.
Stopping to get a photo of a Baobab tree.
Just after midday we arrived at the town of Ségou-Koro, situated 10 kilometers south of Ségou and on the right bank of the Niger River.
The local kids really excited to see the Toubab (white person) visitors.
And definitely not too shy for selfies with Sanny too!
Following Ibrahim with our local guide walking along a mudbrick wall alley. Ségou-Koro was created by the founder of the Bambara Empire, Kaladian Coulibaly in the 17th century.
A baby sitting in the shade of a tree.
The great-grandson of former king Kaladian Coulibaly, Bitòn Coulibaly, used the Ségou-Koro as a capital for his new Bambara Empire and built an army of several thousand men and a navy of war canoes to patrol the Niger River.
Our town guide posing for a portrait.
A lady balancing a bundle of sticks on her head. The town in many ways conserves the tradition and architecture of the ancient capital of the Bambara Empire.
A girl in the entrance of the Village Chief's house.
A lady and her daughter just inside.
Paying our respects to the village Chief.
And his beautiful wife.
We then met with the custodian of the old royal domain and now shrine to Bitòn Coulibaly.
And made the short walk through to the shrine in the middle of town.
The high red clay walls.
The village kids tagging along with us.
The interesting three-pronged key to unlock the front door.
In Bamanan cosmogony the number three represents a man and woman by the number four. Bitòn built the royal domain with seven connected rooms, representing the sum of these two numbers.
The seven rooms sheltered all the assemblies relating to the governance of his kingdom.
The grave of Bitòn Coulibaly in the courtyard outside.
Vont. We then continued our walk through Ségou-Koro.
Ibrahim buying some candy to give to the kids.
An ancient mud brick mosque on the riverbank of the Niger river.
And some of the village kids posing for a photo on the mosque front steps.
Mud bricks drying on the river bank.
A patchwork of crops growing from the water of the river.
Ségou-Koro center with the river stretching out left and right.
A boy and his two goats sheltering in the shade. It was interesting also to see a Malian chicken which looked quite naturally proportioned and not like the plump overbred chickens we have in the west.
Women and children relaxing under a tree.
A young woman posing for a portrait.
Another ancient mud mosque inside the town.
After the very interesting and enlightening stroll through Ségou-Koro we then made the short drive to the city of Ségou.
Checking into Hotel L'Auberge.
And our room for the one night stay. My roommate for the trip was Udo, a finance executive from Germany who worked for Siemens in Abu Dhabi.
Délicieux et rafraîchissant. For lunch we went for a short walk to a local restaurant.
And a tasty serving of fish and chips.
At a Supermarché on the way back to the hotel to buy a few bottles of water.
Back at the hotel we got to meet Monique from Papillon Reizen, the Mali tour company that had organized our trip. Monique was originally from the Netherlands, but travelled the world and eventually settled in Ségou of all places.
In the afternoon we met up at 3pm for a walk through the Ségou Monday market. Ibrahim advised to ask for permission before taking photos close up to avoid any unnecessary aggression and to be careful of our bags from any pickpockets.
A couple of donkeys hauling a load of goods and people.
Seau de peinture.
Fish being deep fried.
Garçon et ânes.
Monday was the main market day so even though it was late-afternoon the market was still very busy and bustling.
Women and children.
A baby wrapped up with their mother.
Various herbs and spices for sale.
A girl reluctantly posing for a portrait.
Mother and baby.
Sweeping brushes for sale. Despite Ibrahim's concerns everyone was quite friendly and not bothered by the bunch of camera wielding Toubab traipsing through their market.
Nuts and pulses.
Bread of the day.
A woman wearing a T-shirt of the famous Malian singer, Rokia Koné.
A boy resting on the bank of the Niger River.
We then walked down to the river. Another girl center wearing a Rokia Koné t-shirt.
Loading up wood brought in on riverboats.
Green, red and blue.
Prendre un repos.
A lady wading out to sell snacks to the passengers on the boat.
One of my favourite captures of the afternoon was this fleeting but beautiful smile.
Boy and bicycle.
After the exciting walk through the energetic and very photogenic markets, we made our way back to Hotel L'Auberge.
The hotel pool where I went for a dip and some temporary respite from the hungry mosquitoes at dusk.
For dinner we ate al fresco at the hotel. A bottle of red French wine to share.
The hotel restaurant had a wood-fired oven so we all opted for some freshly cooked pizza.
And enjoying a tasty and cheesy end to day 2.
We had a long day on the road today so we were packed with bags in the van and ready to go just after 7:30am.
Another Malian chicken roaming about for something to peck.
Baguettes and instant coffee for breakfast to start the day.
Passing a war memorial as we depart the city. Unlike yesterday with clear blue skies, dark rain clouds loomed above and signalled imminent rain.
Today's plan was to drive almost 500 kilometers, first to the town of Bandiagara and then on to the Dogon village of Begnimato where we would stay the night.
Crossing a bridge over the Bani River, the main tributary of the Niger River.
Mathias had brought a cheap Chinese karaoke microphone/speaker he had purchased previously on trip to Somaliland. Along with some cheap rum from Piotr it made for some amusing entertainment to help pass the time on the long day on the road today.
It also made brief announcements in heavily accented Engrish in between songs which made for some cheap laughs too.
Stopping for a break in the town of San. By now the rain had begun to fall, leaving the ground muddy and wet.
A roadside toilet break with guys on the right and gals on the left.
Stopping to fill up the van in the town of Somadougou.
Just after 1pm we arrived in the town of Sévaré. Lunch was at a local restaurant with goat stew in a peanut sauce served with steamed rice.
An hour and 62 kilometers later we made it to the town of Bandiagara, the main gateway to Dogon country.
And where we picked up a few food supplies for the next 24 hours. Unfortunately not all of the eggs survived the bumpy road ahead though.
From Bandiagara the plan to was head ~25 kilometers south-east to the village of Begnimato located by the Bandiagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We then ventured onto the dirt and muddy road across the Mali central plateau.
The cropfields criss-crossed with rows of rocks to stop the soil being washed away by the rain.
Some Dogon Militamen on their motorbikes. They weren't too keen having their photo taken so I sneaked a shot with my iPhone.
In recent years there has been increasing violence between the Dogon and Fulani communities in the Mopti region of Mali.
The Dogon people practise settled agriculture whereas the Fulani are semi-nomadic herders. The Dogon have often accused the Fulani of bringing their cattle onto their farms and destroying their crops, leading to tension and even violence between the two groups including the masscare of 160 Fulani herders in March 2019 and the slaughter of 35 Dogon villagers in June 2019.
The tension between the two communitites has been exacerbated by climate change, land degradation, population growth and jihadist groups exploiting grievances to recruit Fulani and boost their numbers and power in central Mali.
The Islamist militant conflict that began in 2012 and spread to central Mali in 2015 brought more instability and consequently weakened government control. Hence the Dogon self-defence militia were formed to protect their own people.
We were very lucky to visit Dogon Country when we did as shortly afterwards the Dogon militia prohibited further tourists from travelling to the region.
About thirty minutes into our drive the van came to a halt after an apparent mechanical issue with the driver not able engage the clutch.
It appeared to be the mechanical linkage between the pedal and the clutch so luckily nothing too serious though.
Ibrahim quickly made a few phone calls and said not to worry and everything would be sorted in 45 or so minutes.
While we were waiting we went for a walk to a nearby Dogon village.
The people were all out working in their fields so the village was eerily deserted.
A couple of Landcruisers from Bandiagara arrived a short while later to rescue us.
We then loaded up our luggage and supplies to continue the drive to Begnimato.
We arrived at a small village at the end of the road just as dusk was beginning.
It was still a ~2 kilometer walk to Begnimato so Ibrahim enlisted the help of some of the villagers to help carry our luggage.
Making our way down the hill with Begnimato just visible beyond the trees. Luckily we had brought headlamps to help navigate in the fading light.
We arrived in the village right on nightfall. The village had no electricity so it was almost completely dark.
My sleeping bag laid out on the roof of a village hut. It was too hot to sleep inside so we would be sleeping under the stars tonight.
After setting up our sleeping arrangements we gathered for dinner.
With some surprisingly tasty pasta and goatstew.
And some juicy Malian mango for dessert before retiring to the rooftops at the end of day 3.